ONE DAY IN THE FALL of 2006 my mother, visiting from Chicago, and I were having breakfast in Brooklyn, with her rolling through updates on distant relatives who occupy various corners of the Midwest. She told me about our cousin, Helene Leaf, who was researching a Lutheran church founded in East Union, Minnesota, by my great-great-great uncle, Peter Carlson. I was until that point failing to pay attention, dutifully nodding and uttering, “Really?” every few seconds. But then something cut through the static of anonymous small towns and genealogical records: Helene had learned that another great-great-great uncle named Anders Johan Carlson had served in the Union army during the Civil War, and had been standing guard during the execution of several Indians, the sight of which had made him vomit—even, I imagined, as a crowd stood by stolidly, or perhaps even jubilantly. I had grown up in Chicago and had never heard of any such execution, and neither had my mother. The story stuck with me, though, quickly shifting into that category of things you feel like you’ve known all your life. A few months later, I did a cursory Google search and found that the event in question had taken place in Mankato, an unassuming town in southern Minnesota, on December 26, 1862. Thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged by the army, making it the largest mass execution to ever take place in the US. A story began to take shape: The scaffold fell from the Dakotas’ feet, the nooses tightened around their throats, and a resounding cry went up from the throng of a thousand onlookers.
more from Claire Barliant at Triple Canopy here.